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Illness and Healing: the Value of Life. Speech of Jane Gondwe at “Bridges of Peace”

Speech of Jane Gondwe at the International meeting for peace “Bridges of Peace” in Bologna, at the conference entitled  “Illness and Healing: the Value of Life”:

My name is Jane, I’m from Malawi and I’m the coordinator of one of Sant’Egidio’s many DREAM (Disease Relief through Excellent and Advanced Means) Program centers, which have been set up throughout my country and in 11 other African countries. The Program started in 2002 and at the beginning its aim was to prevent and treat AIDS and malnutrition. Today its activities include not only the treatment of infectious diseases but also of chronic diseases and screening for the early diagnosis of cancer. The treatment is free of charge for everyone. Currently DREAM is taking care of 500,000 sick people and it is estimated that the Program has reached over 3,000,000 people through various training courses, and nutritional, health and social support. It is a great health Program that started with the right to treatment, in particular for the poorest people. DREAM has become an opportunity, a chance to develop and to make a decisive change in many fields: health education, the rights of the individual, a new consciousness for women, the culture of work and the development of a civil society. It is a Program that has changed the history of AIDS in Africa and it changed my story, as it has changed that of thousands of sick African people. Today I am a woman with great dignity, who many sick people from my country refer to, ask for help, and I’m often invited to speak a international conferences on AIDS I Africa, but 15 years ago my life was very different.

In 2001 my husband was diagnosed with AIDS, unfortunately very late. The drugs for the treatment were not yet available in my country and in 2004 my husband died. Life got very hard for me and my 3 children, I was kicked out of the house we lived in, I also got HIV and I was fired from the school I taught at for this. In a short time, for my family and for society, I became someone with no name and no rights, just a sick outcast.

I was desperate, without any hope, I cried and wanted to die. I was completely in the dark and then one day a friend of mine told me that there was a therapy, that in Blantyre, my town, there was a center where I could get the therapy and care that I needed free of charge. This is how I met the Community of Sant’Egidio that took care of me through the DREAM Program. In Malawi, like in other countries in Africa, the first years of 2000, there were no antiretroviral drugs for treating AIDS, or at least only a very few and they had to be paid for. Finding out that you had AIDS was like a death sentence for most people and in fact many, many people died during those years.

DREAM introduced the antiretroviral drugs to Africa for everyone and it brought back the hope of life again. The treatment for sick people was good news and even sick people could have a future. Like the Good Samaritan in the Gospel, Sant’Egidio stopped in Africa next to sick people, it bandaged the wounds of the body and soul of so many people and gave them back their life.

Today I would like to thank Sant’Egidio because the treatment that was offered to me free of charge changed my story, that of my children and also that of my country. Today I’m in good health. Once I felt strong again I started studying again and I graduated with a university degree. Above all with my work, not only do I support my family but I have also become the voice of many sick people in my country and in Africa, who have no voice and no rights. The treatment and the closeness, the love I received from so many friends in the DREAM Program, completely cured me, not only my body, but in my sickness I discovered my dignity, I understood the value of my and everybody’s life. Everything that was impossible became possible. It was as though I had been born again. I don’t remember my first birth, but I will never forget my second birth, when I was given back my life again.

The many difficult times that I went through have made me a testimonial for other people. I want to freely give back what I received, by bringing with my voice, my strength and my love, the hope to be cured that changed my life, to people who are sick. My life today can speak of resurrection to many others.

I’ve often asked myself: why me ? I, who was not loved, who had been abandoned by my relatives and my friends, why me? I was considered a worthy person who had to be saved. My life was considered important, even though I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. I was loved in a concrete way by being given care and medicine but also so much hope. Being loved was the experience that brought me back to life and to a more beautiful and happier life than my first life. The care I received gave me a new way of judging other people, it gave me a new way of looking at so many people’s pain. I understood that life always has to be respected and protected, especially when it is weak and sick, in the belief that every human being is the image of God, and this is the fundamental dignity that cannot be taken away or undermined. The love I received produced a new feeling of compassion, which has been a liberating force for my life and for that of many other African women.

This is why I decided to dedicate my work to caring for so many mothers who have AIDS, in order to save many of their lives and also so their children can be born and grow up healthy.

To support them, not only with their many not only physical but also emotional problems, which are caused by the stigma and discrimination that they suffer from. Saving a mother’s life means saving a child but it also means saving a family because the women are the backbone of African society. But I’m also very proud that for the last few years no sick children have been born from seropositive mothers in our DREAM centers in Malawi. This is a victory of medicine and also a victory of love.

Over the last 15 years, with other sick women like myself, we have established the I DREAM association in many African countries. The main aim is to protect access to treatment as a human right that has to be respected regardless of race, religion, age or any social or economic condition and to be able to talk about AIDS without fear or shame. But we also want many other people to be cured through our work, not only people with AIDS but also the many people who have other diseases that are spreading through Africa, like chronic diseases and cancer. Giving people hope that they can be cured giving them hope for life. We go to their homes, the neighborhoods, the streets, the schools and the markets, to talk about how we were cured and we communicate hope. Together we women are changing the history of our countries and are building bridges that bring sick people close to those who are not sick. For many people, by now DREAM is a force of health and salvation.

In my country, every day many people are fighting against the physical suffering of their disease and at the same time they feel alone, often abandoned and they have no help. They experience a pain that is also because they have been isolated by society and because they are unable to deal with the most profound questions of life on their own. It is difficult to find real answers. Sometimes in our African societies the churches seem to be inattentive and far away from the people who look for comfort, relief and a cure. More and more often sick people think they can find the answer in magic, in rites, in traditional medicine, in false prophets and in the sects that take money and give bad advice: “Your disease is a punishment from God for all your sins, you just have to believe in me and my church… don’t take any medicine, I’ll heal you”. In the end many of them die because they don’t take their medicine anymore.

There are so many sick people, they don’t know they can be cured and both their souls and their body are wounded.

By bringing so many people back to life with medicine, DREAM has also brought to light and has changed these aspects of our culture, showing us that miracles can happen when we take care of ourselves. Moreover, the important health education work that I do every day, together with so many other people who are testimonials, is generating a new culture that is changing the fatalistic and magic idea of the disease. This change is freeing people from their feeling of unjustified guilt for a disease that is seen as a punishment for one’s sins, for one’s mistakes. In DREAM the meeting of sick people and the healthcare center is in fact a meeting of two cultures. Here sick people are offered healthcare that is completely different from the healthcare offered in the rest of the country. Today, thanks to this commitment, many people know that AIDS is not a death sentence, a divine punishment, but that it is a disease that can be cured, that they can receive treatment for it. Not only that; they are aware that the treatment free of charge is a right. Besides, over the years, the fact that the lifelong treatment for people with HIV has spread so much, the way people see the disease has begun to change profoundly and people are now becoming aware that it is a chronic pathology. This all represents a great change, also in terms of the collective mentality, of the social conscience in Malawi and in Africa in general. It is a cultural empowerment that is destined to change the health of the populations in a permanent and thorough way, which has paved the way for DREAM to be able treat many other diseases too.

In conclusion, I’d like to tell you that I was a woman with a death sentence who met DREAM and was cured and this brought about not only a profound physical and cultural change in my life and in that of many of my friends. The love that we have received has not been forgotten, it has started a movement of love. Through the experience of the disease I found and rediscovered my faith in a merciful God, close to me, who heals, and it was a real experience of reconciliation with God. This is why I cannot forget the resurrection that took place in my life and this is why I decided to work to cure other people, not only with my testimony but also with ceaseless prayers for everyone, so that many more miracles can happen.

During these years with the Community of Sant’Egidio I’ve understood that the important things come from the heart, but the heart has to be cultivated by reading the Gospel, with love for one another and with service for the weakest people in our society. There are so many wounds and diseases hidden in Africa, not only AIDS. Wounds in hearts, in the villages. Xenophobia is a wound, hating the elderly is a wound. There are wounds in families, wounds in politics; and these wounds become putrid, they get gangrene, these wounds kill not only one man but a whole family, a whole village, town, even a whole country. In Africa we are witnessing an increase in a competitive mentality, whose pressure on the life of individuals is extremely powerful. One has to concentrate on one’s own success. In this perspective, the weakest people despise the useless old people and the poor, the sick, the prisoners and this poisons society, making it often violent and inhumane. I cannot forget what I received without deserving it. It seems as though one has to pay a lot for the beautiful things in life. Whereas with DREAM life, being cured and health is not paid for. I didn’t pay for the most beautiful thing in my life, I was given it free of charge. This means that I have to live and give free of charge. For me, not forgetting this love that I received means multiplying it, making it grow, letting sick people get better, bringing joy to our sad society, where the poor are right to be sad but where the rich are sad too.

It may seem like a paradox but it is the real Christian paradox, that through my illness I found dignity, hope, the meaning of my life and also so much joy to share with other people. I understood that I am important, that each one of us is important before God, and that everyone can be a prophet, a prophet of happiness, and has to prophesy for the happiness of many.

 

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